Joshua 24:31 seems like a straightforward theme verse for the book of Joshua: “Israel served Yahweh all the days of Joshua.” Many contemporary scholars don’t think so. They point to various incidents in the book as examples of unfaithfulness - the spies’ decision to spare Rahab, who should have come under the ban; Achan’s sacrilege; Joshua’s and Israel’s covenant with the Gibeonites, who also should have come under the ban; and the erection of an altar by the trans-Jordan tribes.
Rachel Billings points out in her “Israel Served the Lord”: The Book of Joshua as Paradoxical Portrait of Faithful Israel that traditional interpreters possessed obvious resources to deal with these problems. They could refer to other parts of the Bible (e.g., James’s and Hebrews’ commendation of Rahab) as interpretive guides. The methodological strictures of critical scholarship prevent them from using these resources and so they “have had more difficulty in choosing the most suitable framework for interpreting the story” (27). Just so.
Billings, in any case, thinks that 24:31 is to be taken at face value, but suggests that this forces the reader to examine the complexities of what it means to “serve Yahweh” with faithfulness.
She disposes of the four “unfaithful” acts in great detail. Given Rahab’s confession of faith in Yahweh, “the most ‘obedient’ - albeit unexpected - action for the spies to take vis-a-vis the book of Deuteronomy turns out to be the preservation of her life rather than her destruction. Traditional interpreters were quite perceptive in emphasizing the unexpectedly positive role of Rahab as a character” (43). When Achan steals things under the ban, the text says that “Israel sinned” (7:10), but their “attentiveness and responsiveness to YHWH’s punishment, paired with a trust that does not allow such punishment to create a breach between Israel and its God . . . is what most clearly characterizes Israel as faithful in this passage” (51).
Joshua and Israel make a blunder with the Gibeonites, but “Israel’s leaders demonstrate faithfulness in seeking to restore Israel’s right standing before YHWH” by giving a treaty made in Yahweh’s name priority over herem (77). Indeed, “Joshua symbolically submits the Gibeonites to herem in committing them to the service of the ‘house of God’ . . . devoting them as a living offering to YHWH” (127).
Billings also examines the tensions between statements about complete and incomplete conquest, suggesting that here too the text is not contradictory but merely complex: “the patchwork of occupied and yet-to-be-occupied territories points to the unfinished task of Israel’s obedience and the ongoing work of YHWH in giving Israel the land.” The incompleteness of the conquest is not a mark of Israel’s unfaithfulness but instead shows that “the relationship between the Lord and Israel, between YHWH’s advocacy and Israel’s obedience, has not ended even once Israel has entered the land. The gift of the land is not a static grant, but a gift that exists only in dynamic relation to YHWH’s giving” (128).
Two observations. First, I wonder if “serve” in Joshua 24:31 should be taken more narrowly. David is said to serve Yahweh and be a man after God’s heart, even though he sins grievously. 1-2 Samuel doesn’t present David as sinless, but as a man who has unwavering loyalty to God. That is, the point is about worship more than perfect obedience (cf. Joshua 22:27; 23:7, 16; 24:2, 14-16). This is indeed the great contrast between Israel under Joshua and Israel after: During the period of Judges, Israel does not serve Yahweh just insofar as she worships and serves idols (note the contrast of Judges 2:7 and 2:11-13, 19).
Second, heartened as I am by Billings’s conclusions, I find the entire exercise very odd and a little sad. What would make anyone think that there was a contradiction between Joshua 24:31 and Israel’s actions with regard to Aachan or the altar of Joshua 22? Rahab and the Gibeonites raise other issues, but the narratives clearly show that these Canaanites had switched sides - that is, they abandoned the service of their gods and began to “serve” Yahweh. Why would anyone think they would still be put under the ban? Billings’s careful, solid book is powerful evidence of the confusions of critical scholarship, and the enormous energies that have to be expended to prove the obvious. What kind of progress would biblical studies have made if those same energies had been used more productively?